When should I plant my potatoes?



The potato (Solanum tuberosum) is a useful plant and comes from the nightshade family (Solanaceae). When one says potato, the edible subterranean tuber of the plant is usually meant. As numerous as the varieties of potatoes are, their names are regionally and dialectically different: in French ("pomme de terre") as well as in some regions in Germany it is called Erdapfel. In addition, the terms Erdbirne, Grumbeer, Schockern or Mäusle are common. In the home of the potato - the Andean highlands - it is called "papa". For the Incas in Peru and Bolivia, the potato used to be the main food.

The success story of the popular tuber is closely linked to colonial history, as Spanish conquerors imported the potato into the "Old World". Since the Spaniards confused them with the sweet potato, the "batate", the Spanish word "patata" was used to represent both crops and only later differentiated between "patata", the potato, and "batata", the sweet potato. The colonialists brought the plant to mainland Spain via the Canary Islands - there it was first detected in 1573. From there, the potato slowly spread to Europe, where it was initially planted as an ornamental plant due to its flowering.

Large-scale cultivation in Germany only began in the 18th century. Frederick the Great, who recognized their value as a staple food for his soldiers, contributed to their popularity. Since it became more and more popular in the 19th century with the onset of industrialization, it gradually displaced grain. The lack of alternative crops led to one of the worst famines: In 1845 two million people died of starvation in Ireland because for years only potatoes were grown and the potato rot had destroyed large parts of the harvest. Although the consumption of potatoes has decreased compared to the beginning of the 19th century, there is still an average annual consumption of 50 kilograms of potatoes in Germany - half of which is eaten in processed form.

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Appearance and stature

From a botanical point of view, the potato is an upright herbaceous plant that grows up to one meter high. From June to August, their white, pink or purple five-fold flowers with yellow anthers appear on the above-ground leaf shoots with pinnate leaves, from which cherry-sized, green and inedible berries are formed. New nodules are created underground, which are connected to the root shoots by supporting threads, so-called stolons. The tubers serve as a nutrient store. Depending on the variety, the tuber shape is round, oval or oblong. The color of the pulp varies from white to yellow to blue and purple.

Location and soil

Potatoes thrive on light to medium-heavy, deep soils without waterlogging. Although they can cope with poor soils, they prefer nutrient-rich beds that are enriched with mature manure and compost. However, the yields on poor soils are lower. Ideally, the vegetable patch is sunny.

Crop rotation and mixed culture

Since potatoes leave behind good soil, they are an optimal preculture for all types of vegetables. On the same plot of land, potatoes should only be grown every four years. Regular crop rotation and a varied mixed culture, for example with carrots, broad beans or parsnips, are important. Potatoes and tomatoes should not be grown in close proximity to avoid the transmission of diseases, especially late blight. As a post-crop, mustard and oil radish are suitable as green fertilizers.

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Plant potatoes

Potatoes can be sown and planted. When sowing the potatoes, it should be borne in mind that the seedlings are no longer identical to the mother plant and that new shapes and colors can therefore appear. The advantage of sowing: This is how the otherwise common viral diseases can be contained. You can harvest the seeds from the berries as soon as they are soft. After these have matured for two months, they can be taken out, cleaned and dried. From February the seeds can be sown on the windowsill at 18 to 20 degrees Celsius. Then prick the young plants into small pots. After the ice saints, these can be put into the bed - in such a way that the root ball is about 20 centimeters below the ground.

Planting potatoes is the far more common method. The time of potato planting varies from region to region and depending on the variety. While in mild regions early varieties are planted from the beginning of April, in mountain regions they wait until the beginning of May. In any case, the floor should have warmed up to nine degrees Celsius. Potatoes, which eat up large amounts of food, can be grown as the first crop on land, as they have a soil-improving effect. If the area has just been cleared, you can keep emerging weeds at bay by frequent hoeing and piling.

Place the pre-sprouted seed potatoes in trenches (left). Keep piling up the potatoes as they grow (right)

Those who want to harvest early can pre-germinate their potatoes as early as March. To do this, place up to half of medium-sized tubers in flat boxes filled with potting soil and place them at a temperature of around 15 degrees - ideally in a light greenhouse or in the winter garden so that short, strong shoots form. After about six weeks, the potatoes are carefully planted about ten centimeters deep in the field.

If you want to harvest your new potatoes particularly early, you should pre-germinate the tubers in March. Garden expert Dieke van Dieken shows you how in this video
Credits: MSG / CreativeUnit / Camera + Editing: Fabian Heckle

In addition to the early harvest date from the end of June, pre-sprouted potatoes have other advantages: The plants continue to grow and ripen even in cool weather before the late blight spreads. The yield is therefore around 20 percent higher.

Before planting out, dig up the ground with a digging fork or spade. Well-prepared soil should be moist, loose, and weed-free. Then stretch a planting cord so that the rows of potatoes are as straight as possible and all plants have the same area available. Use a hoe to make a 10 to 20 centimeter deep planting groove.

The distance between the rows should be at least 50 centimeters. Give the heavy eaters a good layer of compost, horn meal or horn shavings in the planting pit, press the pre-germinated tubers lightly into the soil at a distance of 30 to 35 centimeters and close the planting ditches with the rake.

There are a few things you can do wrong with planting potatoes. In this practical video with gardening editor Dieke van Dieken, you can find out what you can do when planting to achieve an optimal harvest
Credits: MSG / CreativeUnit / Camera + Editing: Fabian Heckle

In small beds you can count four to five tubers per square meter. Any loosened, weed-free garden soil is suitable. As a heavy eater, potatoes look forward to a gift of extra compost or a handful of horn meal or horn shavings in the planting hole. The first green will appear after two to three weeks. Now you need to keep the plants moist.

If you don't have a garden, you can grow potatoes in a planting bag or tub on the balcony. Tip: Use only one bulb per container, this will bring a better yield. Potatoes love moist soil, but not waterlogging. Drainage holes and drainage made of gravel are therefore a must.

Caring for potatoes

Since potatoes are root crops, they must be chopped and piled up regularly, at the latest when the first green appears in the bed after two to three weeks. This will ensure that the soil is loose and weed-free so that the plants develop lots of thick tubers. Alternatively, the tubers can be covered with a 20 centimeter thick layer of mulch - this encourages the formation of microorganisms.

Watering the potatoes is also an important part of care: when the tubers start to form, especially in the first three weeks after flowering, you should water the tubers as abundantly as possible in the morning so that the risk of late blight remains low. Overall, potatoes are modest when it comes to fertilization. Manure can be applied to the bed as early as autumn, but you should be more sparing when fertilizing potatoes, as too much nitrogen makes the plants more susceptible to disease.

Harvest and recovery

Traditionally, potatoes are harvested when the plants take their natural break. That's about three months after planting. Early varieties are ready for harvest between June and the beginning of July. The herb first turns yellow, then browns and withers. If there are signs of late blight infestation, the potatoes must be removed from the soil before the fungus can spread to the tubers.

Wait for a sunny, dry day and dig up a perennial to test. If the potato peel is wear-resistant and fully ripe and the tubers are easily detached from the sprouts of the herb, you shouldn't wait any longer. A digging fork is best suited for harvesting, but even with it you cannot always avoid injuring the tubers.

Lift the above-ground parts of the plant with the digging fork, pull them with the attached tubers out of the earth and use the potatoes quickly. On the other hand, storable late varieties may only be harvested when they are surrounded by a layer of cork.

Instead of digging up the whole perennial, you can also carefully expose the roots, remove the largest tubers and pile up the rows with soil again. The rest of the potatoes will continue to grow in this way. This method is particularly worthwhile in small gardens or when cultivating in plant sacks. Harvested tubers are best kept in a cellar in a dark, cool and frost-free place - depending on the variety, this means that they can be enjoyed until next spring. Sort out damaged, too small, or stained specimens immediately. Healthy tubers are left to dry out on the bed. The potatoes should dry out within a day to such an extent that the soil that is still adhering to them crumbles off by itself.

Whether you have harvested it yourself or bought it: When storing the potatoes, make sure that only tubers that are externally flawless are stored without discoloration or noticeably sunken areas. Visibly diseased tubers should be sorted out consistently. So that the tubers do not form green spots with harmful solanine, potatoes should be kept as dark as possible. The optimal storage temperature is four to six degrees Celsius. Warmer storage accelerates the breakdown of vitamin C and promotes the formation of germs. At temperatures below zero degrees Celsius, the starch it contains turns into sugar and the taste becomes unpleasantly sweet. Even with optimal conditions it happens again and again that tubers rot. Sort them out as quickly as possible.

Spade in and out with the potatoes? Better not! MY SCHÖNER GARTEN editor Dieke van Dieken shows you in this video how you can get the tubers out of the ground undamaged.
Credit: MSG / Camera + Editing: Marc Wilhelm / Sound: Annika Gnädig

Tip: Several boxes instead of a high potato rack make checking easier. Airy slatted crates in appropriate basement or storage rooms are well suited. Storage in plastic containers or in tight containers, on the other hand, promotes mold growth. Covering the tubers in the store with newspaper helps prevent the potatoes from shrinking due to the loss of moisture.

There is also a way to preserve the tubers: Potatoes can be frozen, not raw, but cooked or made into soup.

Variety tips

More than almost any other crop, potatoes are characterized by their variety of varieties. It is estimated that there are over 2000 varieties worldwide. Whether yellow, brown, pink or blue shell colors with white, yellow or red-violet meat - there is something for every taste. Not to be forgotten are the different heights, flower colors and the important meat consistency. There are strong floury potatoes to waxy potatoes. In contrast, there are only a few on the market, as only those are sold as seeds that are on the federal list of varieties. Around 120 varieties of potatoes are permitted in Germany - including the well-known medium-early varieties ‘Agria’ (floury) and ‘Nicola’ (waxy) or ‘Sieglinde’, an early, waxy variety with a smooth, yellow skin and yellow flesh. It is the oldest cultivar in the German variety list and has been approved since 1954. A favorite variety is ‘Highland Burgundy Red’. The late variety has richly marbled pink flesh that is good for puree.

Old potato varieties usually have a fine taste: ‘Pink pine cones’ is one of the oldest varieties and produces 30 to 35 tubers per seed potato. One of the blue potatoes is, for example, ‘Blauer Schwede’. The variety has a safe yield, beautiful flowers and blue leaves. Among the new potatoes, ‘Rosara’ brings a lot of yield and has a good potato aroma. The earliest tubers include ‘Annabelle’, ‘Christa’ and the red potato Rosara ’. ‘Sarpo Mira’, a healthy new breed from Hungary, has proven to be resistant to the dreaded late blight.

Slim tubers are also known as mouse potatoes. One of these is the ‘Bamberger Hörnla’ variety, which is mainly grown in the Bamberg area and is very well known. It is waxy, medium-sized, has a yellow to pink skin and white flesh.